In its closing months, the Bush administration intensified calls for Mugabe to quit, saying Washington could no longer support a government that included him.
But U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as Zimbabwe policy is under review, said the language against Mugabe was less forceful under President Barack Obama, who took over two weeks ago.
The goal, they said, was to give southern African nations breathing space in dealing with Mugabe who has agreed on a power-sharing arrangement with Zimbabwe’s opposition.
Another reason for caution was that President Barack Obama had not yet appointed his team of high-level African experts either at the State Department or the White House.
The latest U.S. language about Mugabe is notably different than the strong words used by ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her top African diplomats, who repeatedly said Mugabe should step down.
"It’s well past time for Robert Mugabe to leave," Rice said in December, adding that African nations must take the lead on pressuring him to quit. Most African states, including South Africa, have stopped short of calling on Mugabe to leave.
On Friday, when pressed whether the U.S. view was still that Mugabe must quit, State Department spokesman Robert Wood avoided calling for the veteran leader’s ouster but said there was skepticism whether his power-sharing deal would work.
"What Robert Mugabe needs to do, is to do what’s best for the people of Zimbabwe — and an effective power-sharing arrangement … that’s what needs to happen," Wood said.
The official said: "If the Africans believe there is a solution short of Mugabe leaving, we are trying to provide room for that to take place. But we have to be skeptical."
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is set to become prime minister under a deal with Mugabe to end a political stalemate that has exacerbated an economic and humanitarian crisis.
Africa expert Todd Moss, who worked at the State Department’s Africa bureau until last October, did not expect a major U.S. policy shift over Zimbabwe but the new administration might want to work more quietly, he said.
"They may want to try and use some capital with the South Africans and see if they can push something more quietly rather than immediately getting the South Africans’ backs up," said Moss, now with the Center for Global Development.
A State Department official, who also declined to be identified, said the plan was to let most of the pressure on Mugabe come from regional African leaders. There was also a fear of the consequences if Mugabe was forced out very fast.
"If he goes precipitously his supporters may feel threatened and they are the ones with the guns," he said.
The United States and allies such as Britain have imposed targeted sanctions on Mugabe and his supporters. They are unlikely to be lifted any time soon, but could be intensified.
Wood made clear last week there would be no substantial development aid to Zimbabwe political and economic reforms were well underway and the new government fulfilled its promises.